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Noah Baumbach on “Margot at the Wedding”

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By Aaron Hillis

IFC News

[Photos: Left, Nicole Kidman in “Margot at the Wedding”; below, Noah Baumbach, Paramount Classics, 2007]

Some of us have been following writer-director Noah Baumbach’s career since his 1995 debut (the addictively quotable, post-collegiate pearl “Kicking and Screaming”), but his wry, semi-autobiographical dramedy “The Squid and the Whale” had even bigger acclaim and success spilling out its blowhole in 2005. Critics have been leaving the bar high for Baumbach, since his fifth directorial feature, “Margot at the Wedding,” shares some similarities with “Squid,” including a reactionary novelist, self-destructive family politics, parent-child role reversals and brutally sharp-witted dialogue. Nicole Kidman stars as the domineering Margot, on a trip to the country with her son Claude (Zane Pais) to visit her boho sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Baumbach’s real-life wife). Pauline is about to marry the shlubbily mediocre Malcolm (Jack Black), a man Margot instantly despises and can’t hold her barbed tongue about, making for a cringe-worthy reunion of humiliations, projections and secrets exposed. So why are we laughing so much? I had a chance to speak to Baumbach the week that his film opened.

In “The Squid and the Whale,” children learned behavior from parents who show no filter between what they think and their verbal lashings out. In “Margot,” nearly everyone acts like this, blood-related or not. The dialogue feels genuine but somewhat stylized to me since I’ve never met anyone with that personality type. Do you know people who act as scathingly as this?

I know a lot of different kinds of people, and I’m not specifically drawing upon real people. But yeah, I guess I would say I recognize the behavior in the movie. It’s familiar to me. I mean, I don’t see them quite as unfiltered. There are things they say, Margot in particular, that might make you think: “Oh, I can’t believe she’s saying that right now.” But there’s a lot she withholds, also. I don’t know if Pauline or Malcolm is so unfiltered. Did you find that?

A little bit. Definitely not to Margot’s extent, but I’d also believe a volatile chemistry could cause people to pick up each other’s bad behaviors while in close proximity.

Right, and well, I think there’s a major difference to how people talk when they’re around their family. In Margot’s case, if you’re in crisis, you’re often not your best self. I think the conversation in this movie is very particular to the situation and environment that the characters are in, as opposed to if these people were all at a cocktail party being introduced for the first time. I think sisters feel freer to say things to one another that they wouldn’t say to other people. Similarly, Margot says things to Claude that she wouldn’t say to other people. That’s evidenced when Margot is interviewed by Dick in that bookstore and he takes a swipe at her. She has a really hard time with that.

That scene in particular read as a pointed attack on critics who harp on trying to figure out what specifically is autobiographical in your work. Does the endless analysis of your personal life and upbringing make you want to, say, go make a genre film just to get them off your back?

Well, I guess by [having made] this movie, it didn’t. I got tired of answering that, certainly in “Squid” interviews. If it was interesting to me, I would’ve been more interested in talking about it. I don’t know any writer of fiction who enjoys trying to point out or dissect whatever they produced with strangers and let them go through it and pick apart what’s real and what isn’t.

Even though Margot has some dislikeable qualities, you’ve said before that you hope audiences will understand her. Reverse Shot wrote about this film that “the compassion [Baumbach] once showed toward his neurotic characters, starting from his 1995 debut, ‘Kicking and Screaming,’ has turned into rancor.” In defense of that, would you personally want to spend time with these characters, and how mean-spirited do you see the film to be?

A lot of us do spend time with these characters. People might not want to see that in a movie, but I think this behavior is a lot more common than what people let on or recognize. On the other side of it, I’m not writing about people I necessarily want to go hang out with. It’s certainly not why I’m writing about them. In a lot of ways, I think the question is wrong. I’m not saying yours is; you’re reading from a review. I don’t really know how to start talking about these people with “Oh, they’re unsympathetic.” First of all, I don’t think that’s true from even sensitive people’s criteria. Pauline is not a perfect human being, but I think she’s very sympathetic. I think Malcolm, the kids and John Turturro’s character are sympathetic. I have a lot of empathy for Margot, but I understand how people might… you know, I’ll give them a pass on that one. She dominates a lot of the movie, and I know that can be difficult for people, but in the movies and books I like, there is such a thing as an unreliable narrator. I suppose it fits in a Jim Thompson novel, but why not have it in movies that are actually closer to our lives, that are about real human interaction [rather] than trying to sympathize with hitmen, murderers, or some sort?

When you write characters who are themselves writers, do you find it difficult to convey how good or bad their work is?

Well, that’s not important. Whether or not Margot is a good writer isn’t really relevant to the movie. A lot of times, people would refer to Jeff Daniels’ character in “Squid” as a bad writer. I don’t think that’s true, necessarily. But that was people deciding because they had a problem with him as a person. I think at this point, we’re all familiar with writers that we may not like as people but we like their work.

You worked with your wife for the first time, which I’m sure was a real pleasure, but was the transition ever awkward in maintaining a professional demeanor?

No, I found it really easy. That’s why we did it — because we thought it would be fun, collaborative and great. It’s a continuation of the marriage; things that come from marriage also come into the work. I’ve been on a few movie sets and Jennifer’s been on a lot of them, so we’re very comfortable and feel very free on them. It’s great to have somebody that you know so well who can bear with you. I mean, I’ll get annoyed with actors I’m not married to over a 40-day shoot. [laughs] A film set becomes its own family anyway, and all family dynamics come out during a shoot. The trick is hiring people who know how to handle that. But it’s like any marriage. If Jennifer and I decided to go coal mining together for the first time, I’m sure the anxiety and tension of that might put a strain on things. The fact is, making a movie is something we’re both very comfortable with, and excited and happy to do.

“Margot at the Wedding” opens in limited release on November 16th.


Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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GIFs via Giphy

Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.